A Double-Edged Sword: China’s Environmental and Resource Policies

by Woqing Wang
MA, Johns Hopkins University – SAIS


For many years, China has been one of the largest carbon emission contributors, and the country found it hard to address domestic environmental issues since they seemed at odds with its economic development. However, recent years have witnessed China’s attempt to participate in global environmental diplomacy by the remarkable development of its domestic environmental policy. Reduction of carbon emission and improvement of energy efficiency are the policy’s core.[i] This significant change in China’s domestic environmental policy and the resultant involvement in international climate negotiations mainly stem from domestic rather than international factors, including energy efficiency concerns, industrial objectives and rising scientific comprehension of environmental degradation.[ii] Does China’s new environmental policy agenda generate costs or benefits for the international community? From the analysis presented here, international benefits and costs are both produced. While the decrease in CO2 emissions by China would support mitigation of global climate change and relieve pressure on global natural resources, China’s authoritarian environmentalism could result in institutional costs for international environmental organizations.

With regards to global benefits, as one of the world’s largest carbon emitters, China changed its behavior to make substantial contribution to mitigation of global climate change through its domestic reduction in CO2 emissions. Along with China’s success in realizing 20 percent energy-intensity goal, not only did China include carbon regulation into its environmental policy for the first time, but it also expressed its inclination to undertake international environmental responsibility in the international climate negotiations. [iii]According to Lewis, China’s change of attitudes in international climate negotiations is its “willingness to adopt legally binding commitments as part of a future climate change agreement, rather than just voluntary commitments”,[iv] which can be observed by China’s explicitly established Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions goals at the 2011 Durban climate negotiations. This notable shift is predominantly attributed to China’s low-carbon targets and the domestically implemented programs, including national emissions inventory system and carbon-trading schemes.[v] The formation and execution of these national low-carbon programs can be considered as a vital outcome of China’s fulfillment of the legally binding emissions reduction commitments, which in turn could potentially lead to reduction of global carbon emissions and relief of global climate change pressure.

Apart from mitigation of global climate change, China’s carbon intensity targets could reduce pressure on global natural resources by adopting new technology and increasing efficiency in the energy sector. The central government of China regards state-owned enterprises (SOEs) as dominant leaders in improving energy efficiency in power generation to avoid potential disorder results from uncontrolled private entities.[vi]  National policies implemented by SOEs regarding energy efficiency improvement comprise new technological application, better fuel sources and large-scale production,[vii] which are parallel to the global climate goals and essentially relieve the stress of global natural resources. The rationale behind this is that since China is the largest source of demand for global natural resources, its reducing demand will largely contribute to the mitigation of pressure on global resources.

China, as the largest carbon emitter, has played a key role in addressing the problems of global environmental degradation and resources shortage by means of its domestic environmental policies. Nevertheless, as a country features authoritarian environmentalism, China’s domestic environmental policies have inevitably produced institutional costs for international environmental regimes. The weak participatory and democratic nature of authoritarian environmentalism determines the constrained international actors’ participation and influence. [viii] Under this non-democratic system, although an increasing scientific and technical understanding of environment has emerged[ix] and environmental scientists have become willing to establish linkages with international environmental community,[x] the central government’s ideology to promote domestic interests is the determining factor in practice. The central government in China takes advantage of its environmental policy to realize its prioritized targets, “including protecting Chinese sovereignty, acquiring foreign aid and technical assistance, and promoting economic development”.[xi] In order to acquire foreign aid and technical assistance that would further give rise to China’s economic development,[xii] China was able to not only temporarily step away from the coalitions, such as G-77 and BASIC which were built to resist any commitments to decrease the groups’ GHG emissions[xiii] when needed, but it was also capable of making use of the international community’s interests in decreasing China’s GHG emissions by allowing or sometimes even motivating the scientific and technical officials to increase their interaction with foreign experts and obtain funds, technology and information.[xiv]

China takes advantage of “internationalization of environmental politics to forward their own policy priorities”,[xv] which largely impairs the institutional mechanisms of the international organizations who are deprived of funds and technology, and unable to promote their interests or realize their goals.

China’s aggressive environmental and resources policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions and increasing energy efficiency constitute a double-edged sword. While these domestic environmental policies make significant contributions to mitigation of global climate change and reduction of global natural resources’ pressures, it cannot be denied that the institutional costs for the international entities are attributed to the authoritarian policy in China. What is worse, the centralization of the state power and the resultant media censorship has intensified since Xi took over the place, which is very likely to further constrain public participation into the policy establishment process. Only when the international environmental organizations are able to exhaustively exert their functions within the Chinese society in terms of environment protection issues, can China benefit from the foreign technology and funds, and only then can the international community witness a net impact of China’s domestic policies.


[i] Joanna I. Lewis, China Across the Divide: The Domestic and Global in Politics and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 203.

[ii] Ibid, 203.

[iii] Ibid, 217.

[iv] Ibid, 219.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Henrik Bergsager and Anna Korppoo, “China’s State-Owned Enterprises as Climate Policy Actors: The Power and Steel Sectors,” TermaNord, 2013, http://norden.diva- portal.org/smash/get/diva2:702164/FULLTEXT01.pdf.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Bruce Gilley, “Authoritarian Environmentalism and China’s Response to Climate Change,” Environmental Politics 21, no. 2 (2012): 288.

[ix] Lewis, 206.

[x] Miranda Schreurs and Elizabeth Economy, The Internationalization of Environmental Protection (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 38.

[xi] Lewis, 206.

[xii] Schreurs and Economy, 39.

[xiii] Lewis, 208.

[xiv] Schreurs and Economy, 39.

[xv] Schreurs and Economy, 21.


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